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Erin Petrey had experienced gastrointestinal symptoms since she was a child. It wasn’t until she was 24 that her symptoms really intensified and got quite complex and confusing. Her symptoms included stomach pain, fatigue, terrible night sweats, and inflammation that would appear in one foot and eye and then the other. She went to a variety of doctors looking for answers but came up empty.
“It was terrifying,” Erin remembers. “There were many traumatic moments, such as waking up in pain with unexplained fevers. My feet and ankles would swell for weeks, and it was painful to even put weight on them. I thought my body was breaking down. I went from feeling normal and healthy to constantly ill.”
Her frustration led her to find Mark C. Mattar, MD, director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Center at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Once she met him, answers came quickly. After a colonoscopy, he immediately diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease, a type of IBD that causes inflammation in the digestive tract and often other parts of the body, too.
“I was scared at first because I didn’t know exactly what the diagnosis meant,” Erin says. “But it was also a relief to finally have an answer. Until I met Dr. Mattar, other doctors had just been treating all of my miscellaneous symptoms. He was the first to identify the cause and create a plan to manage it.”
Dr. Mattar and his multidisciplinary team treat a variety of IBD conditions, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, microscopic colitis, and celiac disease. He says young patients often have difficulty finding their way to a diagnosis but are always reassured when they hear just how advanced treatment options have become.
“A lot of providers see someone young and healthy and think it’s stress and dismiss them,” Dr. Mattar says. “We do not. We take them seriously because early diagnosis helps prevent complications in the future. Surgery is now only needed in about five to 10% of cases because medications aggressively treat these conditions. We combine that with complementary therapies including probiotics, special diets, and more.”
While Crohn’s disease isn’t curable, Dr. Mattar says the IBD Center finds that a multidisciplinary approach can help patients live well with their disease.
“IBD doesn’t just affect the colon or small intestine,” says Dr. Mattar. “It can also cause rashes, eye pain, joint issues, skin and vision problems, arthritis, and more. So, sometimes we need to get a rheumatologist, mental health specialist, ophthalmologist, or dermatologist involved. We have a dietician on the team as well.
It’s a marathon for these patients, and we provide a comprehensive team to help them so they don’t have to search for each specialist on their own.”
One recommended medication required Erin to avoid alcohol—an unfortunate fit for her since she has a second job writing and teaching about spirits, bourbon, and cocktails.
“I told Dr. Mattar—I need a different medication that will still allow me to have a normal life and do my job. He listened and recommended another one,” Erin says. “This is a disease that requires a lifetime of management, so it is extremely helpful to have a good team I can rely on.”
For Erin, now 33, relief has come from infusions, vitamins, supplements, and diet changes. She takes care of herself by maintaining her diet, keeping all of her appointments, and continuing to advocate for herself, too.